HL Deb 22 December 1982 vol 437 cc1085-92

12.35 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th November 1982 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 1982 be agreed to. These regulations are simple and uncontroversial, and are to be made under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979. They will have the sole effect of increasing, by 40 per cent., each of the payments made under the Act to sufferers, and the dependants of deceased sufferers, who first become entitled to a payment on or after 1st January 1983.

Before I go on to talk about the regulations, I think that perhaps I ought to say that I know that some of your Lordships take a considerable interest in compensation for victims of dust diseases, and may want to raise issues which go well beyond the scope of what we are discussing today. Of course, these are important areas, and I do not want to deflect your Lordships' attention from them; but I hope that today we might impose some sort of a self-denying ordinance and concentrate merely on the regulations which are before us.

What do the regulations mean? Perhaps I can start by listing the three main conditions of entitlement for sufferers which are set out in the Act. These are, first, that the applicant is being paid disablement benefit because of one of the diseases the Act covers; secondly, that every relevant employer of his has ceased to carry on business—and I shall come back to that later—and, thirdly, that he has not brought any action, or compromised any claim, for damages. For example, let us take someone who meets the last two conditions and is awarded disablement benefit in January next year. He would be entitled to compensation at the new rates. Another example would be a person who is receiving disablement benefit now but who has a relevant employer left who goes out of business on or after 1st January but within the 12 months normally allowed for application after the date when disablement benefit first becomes payable to him. He, too, would be paid at the higher rate.

To date there have been over 5,500 applications for compensation under the Act. Some 1,200 applications were rejected for failing to satisfy all the entitlement conditions prescribed in the Act. The majority of those which failed did so because there was still a relevant employer in business. The Act explains that a relevant employer is any person by whom the disabled person was employed at any time while he was developing the disease and against whom he might have or might have had a claim for damages in respect of his disablement. It also means the whole firm, and not just an individual mill or plant.

The people who will continue to be paid at the current rates are those already qualified or who qualify this year, but do not get around to applying until next year. What matters is when someone in fact qualifies, and not when he or she applies. The current rates were laid down in the Pneumoconiosis (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) Regulations 1979. These were debated by your Lordships' House on 18th December 1979, and came into operation on 1st January 1980. The 40 per cent. increase is intended to restore the payments to the value they had when the original rates were determined.

Being anxious to be as fair as possible when interpreting this condition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State took legal and medical advice on what should be regarded as a relevant employer still in business. My right honourable friend was also advised that a disabled person might not have a claim against a former employer where the employment in question did not appear to have made a material contribution to the development of his disease. Following this advice a payment was made to about 500 applicants whose applications had previously been rejected.

Perhaps I should also say something about the time limit for making applications. Normally this is 12 months after disablement benefit first becomes payable to them. Sometimes it happens that someone applies promptly after he or she learns the sad news, only to be turned down because there is still a relevant employer in existence. However, to make sure that people do not lose out by applying quickly, rejected cases are reviewed at the end of the 12 months during which those people could have applied. If they qualify within the 12 months, they are paid. The Determination of Claims Regulations made under the Act also give the Secretary of State discretion to accept late applications, and this direction is used fairly generously so that if someone would have been entitled to a payment had he or she applied in time then the claim is generally allowed.

Some might say that the payments are low when compared with what can be awarded by the courts to those able to bring a claim. But it should be remembered that claimants under the Act do not have to demonstrate that their employers have been in breach of either a statutory or common law duty. This is an important difference which I believe should be reflected in the size of the payments made.

The rates of payment will be kept under review in the light of further changes in the value of money. I am sure that these proposals offer a fair rate of compensation for the immediate future. Whatever the size of the payment, it will never truly compensate individuals and families for the pain, the distress, the suffering and the loss that they suffer. At least we shall have done something to alleviate the dreadful effects of these diseases for those most intimately affected. Therefore, I commend the regulations to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th November 1982 be approved.—(Lord Glenarthur.)

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I have pleasure in agreeing to this Motion on behalf of my side of the House. We have no intention of going into the provisions of this Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, suggested we might, although I understand that my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek wants to say something about those matters after I sit down.

All I want to do is to thank the noble Lord for what I take to be the principle behind the increase, because it seems to me that in very broad terms we have here an increase at roughly the level of the RPI. As the noble Lord said, he wants to compensate those who fall victim of this awful disease at the rate that was available when, indeed, the Act was introduced by the previous Government. He wants to restore that rate. Therefore, although one might have said earlier—and I think that someone on the Liberal Benches in fact said it—that there might be a dead hand at the Department of Trade, in the Department of Employment this Christmas there is not quite a dead heart. It is right that we should try to do this.

My question is as follows. Does it mean, in broad terms, that the Government, at this late stage, have in fact accepted the principle of compensation for matters of this kind at the level of the RPI—that is, at the level of the rate of increase? That is my first and major question. My second question—and I apologise for not giving the noble Lord any notice of this, but it has only just occurred to me—is this. If that is accepted, and even if it is not generally accepted, for pneumoconiosis, would it not be better if we did not wait from 1979 to 1982 before we compensated? Because anybody who was subject to this Act and went for compensation under this Act some time between 1980 and 1983 presumably did not get compensated for movements in the RPI.

Therefore, would it not be much better—and could the noble Lord give us some indication of the Government's thinking on this—if the Government were to accept not simply compensation at the level of the RPI three or four years later, but in fact a process of annual indexation of this sum to keep it in line with the RPI?

Lord Hale

My Lords, I do not propose to waste time, as has been done previously, by explaining that I shall be very brief. I would prefer to carry on with my speech without any unnecessary trimmings. I personally want to congratulate the Government on this measure: on the way in which it has been handled, and on the way in which it has been presented. Originally, it was a joint Bill presented by both the great parties when it came before us in 1979, at the very moment when the trumpeters were cleaning their trumpets to blow the glad tidings of a general election. I believe that it was the very last act of the previous dying Government, and it was passed with the support of all parties.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has been good enough to explain with great clarity and brevity the extraordinary problems which confronted the Government—problems that have never been confronted before in the whole tortuous history of workmen's compensation, industrial injury benefit, and so on. This was an attempt—a successful attempt—to deal with a very serious anomaly.

Because of decisions postponing the grant, the man suffering from byssinosis had to establish that he had worked in a given part of the industry for 10 years. Applicants could not make claims for benefit in time because of the limitation on claims. In many cases—particularly in fluctuating industries, such as textiles and so on—firms had gone out of business before the claims could be presented. So this Act attempted a legislative achievement and got it through by the interesting device of putting a non-existent word in the Title. So the word "etc." now governs these pensions as opposed to any other pensions.

With respect to my noble friend on the Front Bench, who referred to this disease, a number of diseases are covered by this—and I doubt whether even the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, could read them out offhand—because the word "etc." was designed to permit the Government to include diseases which had never before been scheduled and which had been popping up as genuine dust diseases in obscure little industries, where people were being caused suffering.

On the whole, this is a very successful measure indeed, although in another place it was subject to such criticisms as the short amount of time made available to discuss it. I understand that this measure is due to come into force on 1st January, and, therefore, may be submitted for a very early Royal Assent indeed. No doubt the measure has been considered by Her Majesty in its present form, because there may not be enough time for the Assent to be signalled.

I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur. The result is, in the main, a 40 per cent. increase in the actual payment being made, and it gives a second chance in a large number of circumstances to many people who deserve a second chance. In those circumstances, I do not think that it is a good idea to quibble about a word, but one should express one's wholehearted thanks for something that closes a chapter in one's life.

In fact, it does not close it; there are other things to come. But those of us who have been interested in industrial diseases for over 50 years regard this as a moment to celebrate. I am sorry if I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, who is normally very courteous, but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, set a proper practice by mentioning which order he was going to discuss before he started to discuss it.

12.50 p.m.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, as somebody in the Department of Health and Social Security who had the privilege at the Front Bench in the other place some years ago to introduce for the first time a method of compensation for miners with pneumoconiosis, and known as old cases, and as someone who remembers well the pioneering work done with his skill in law towards improving pneumoconiosis compensation by the noble Lord, Lord Hale—and I suffered bullets from him myself when I was on the Front Bench dealing with this—may I say that both of us are delighted with this step forward. We are grateful for this 40 per cent. increase. It would be churlish of me today, in a brief three-minute speech, to try to find points and holes in this move forward.

Whatever anybody may say about the period when it was introduced, we are grateful that people who suffer will benefit as a result. However, there are three small points I should like to raise. There will always be danger, so long as people are running down the corridors of time, in hewing coal. As somebody who comes from farmers and miners and has witnessed the greatest explosion in the history of world mining at Senghenydd as a small boy in 1913, I know the human price paid by all types of men. This is a day to pay tribute to the medical profession, the mining industry, leaders in mining, and those lawyers and others who have helped us to understand how to compensate. I am watching the clock, so do not worry.

I have recently been reading The Lancet and other information. There is no doubt that we have to make more progress in studying the problems of dust in the mining industry. I am glad that "et cetera" was placed there because, unknown to millions of people, workers in the tube train industry known as "fluflers"—those people who, while we are sleeping, work on the tracks of the tube trains of London, where there is asbestos wrapping and 10 times more dust than on the streets of London; a fact that is not well known—and people like that are coming into the compensation grades. This is not the place to develop it, but en passant I mention it so that at some time when we get the time attention will be given to that problem. Recent medical studies of an erudite nature in The Lancet which I read the other day are now declaring that, because of quartz in mining, the incidence of pneumoconiosis is more rapid. The quartz content is higher than previously thought, said The Lancet on 15th December 1981.

The last point, you will be pleased to know, is that prevention is being developed more than ever in the mining industry. The air stream air purifying helmet is a new device that we hope to encourage for the use of miners. As somebody who knows what hard work is with a helmet on, I know that the tendency is not to wear any device because of the difficulties of breathing. Having made my three-minute speech, and for once being able to congratulate the Government, I shall sit down.

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, it is appropriate that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, is presenting these regulations this afternoon. Among his many talents and interests are geology and mineralogy, and pneumoconiosis is a mineralogical disease. Touching on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, it is not the cloud of dust that you see that is dangerous, it is those particles in the dust which are invisible which are the treacherous elements which lead to pneumoconiosis in all its varieties.

My first task on entering this field was to devise a method for identifying these invisible particles, such as the quartz referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I joined a distinguished group of workers in the early 1950s, and we led the world in our understanding of this disease, and in fact produced the proof which enabled the Government to replace the variety of names with the umbrella title of "pneumoconiosis". Here we are today aware of the variety of mechanical and pathogenic results which can emerge from the inhalation of particles.

Not all particles can enter the bronchioles and ultimately the alveoli of the lung and cause mechanical and subsequent pathogenic malformations and disease. Some are too large to enter and some are too small to remain within the body of the lung, and so we present the scientists and the medical men with a difficult problem of diagnosis of a hazardous atmosphere. We should therefore bear in mind the difficulties in the administration of a compensation scheme in which often it is a matter of opinion as to whether the atmosphere is hazardous or not.

Therefore, I welcome these tables, particularly because they recognise the fact that we could not prove in the early days that which we knew would emerge, that there would be a delayed action from inhaling dust in one occupation and the disease not showing itself until that person entered another occupation. We have had some outstanding cases of this kind. I should like to put on record my appreciation of the tolerant attitude of the National Coal Board to us scientists, who have been pointing this out to them. They have been tolerant, helpful, and so on. Embodied in this I see the equal tolerance as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, and sympathy that they have for these unfortunate victims of disease. Also, what I like about these tables is the clarification of the compensation that their relatives will receive. I congratulate the Government on this major advance in compensation under the umbrella title of pneumoconiosis.

Lord Edmund-Davies

My Lords, to one who spent a long part of his life both at the Bar and on the Bench dealing with the legal complexities arising from the assault of dust diseases, the regulations now under consideration come as a most welcome addition to the provisions which were belatedly made to deal with the horrible consequences of the various dust diseases. I warmly commend these regulations to the approval of the whole House.

12.58 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful for the unanimous welcome that these regulations have received. That they come just before Christmas is perhaps fortuitous, but nevertheless I am most grateful to all noble Lords for their kind remarks. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy—I think I got him right—asked about the relativity of the 40 per cent. to the increase in RPI over the period that the Act has been in force. The current rates of compensation came into operation on 1st January 1980. As I said, the new rates represent an increase of 40 per cent. and will restore the value of these payments to what they were when first calculated. It might be helpful if I pointed out to the noble Lord that the retail price index, for example, rose 32.9 per cent. between January 1980, when the present rates came into operation, and November 1982, so the 40 per cent. represents something over the increase in RPI in that period.

The noble Lord also asked me if I can summarise him correctly, why, it has taken so long to get the whole problem sorted out. The reason for that really—and I think it has been illustrated by what the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, said just now—is that it is a highly complicated process. Not only is the Act itself complicated, but there is so much scientific work being carried out on the whole subject of dust-related diseases that unfortunately it has not proved practicable to introduce this compensatory legislation at this time. But it is being looked at the whole time. I cannot say that the review of the compensation will be fixed in any particular period—that it will be annual, for example—but it is a matter which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will look at closely and regularly, and I hope that will give confidence to those who suffer from the disease.

I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hale, was able to speak on this matter. He brings a great deal of personal experience to the subject, as does the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. I shall not rise to Lord Hale's challenge and try to pronounce the names of the relevant diseases that come under it, because he is right to say that they are very complicated. As for the interesting words of Lord Davies of Leek on "fluffers", the subject of quartz and the purifying helmet, these matters will be studied seriously by all those involved in compensation, not only in the Department of Employment but in health and social security and all other aspects involved with injuries sustained in this way.

I was grateful for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, about geology. I cannot claim to be in the same league as he, with his wide knowledge of the subject, but I, too, would welcome any help given by any industry towards trying to solve the problem. I know they are all greatly concerned, and of course it is not productive to them if their workforce is laid off because they suffer from these diseases, which are universally regarded as dreadful. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his helpful remarks.

On Question, Motion agreed to.